Gospel Sunday audience members at the Northside Music Festival last year. An evening service has been added this year. Photo courtesy of Jayson Patterson.

When it came time to start planning the 2024 Northside Music Festival, July 12 through 14, founder Ben Soltesz was having second thoughts.

The free, inaugural event broke even last year, he says, and this year, “I wasn’t sure I was going to do it.

“You add up all of the costs of this thing, and you wonder how it works.”

But sponsors, including Allegheny Health Network, Highmark and First National Bank, were on board, and Allegheny Center Alliance Church congregants wanted to reprise their Gospel Sunday celebration.

So Soltesz was persuaded, and now he’s excited: “Our lineup is great this year.”

Most of the acts are new to the festival and all of them are paid. As usual, the schedule is an eclectic mix with pop, psychedelic, rock, soul, rap, Americana – and “Pittsburgh post-polka” from the Polkamaniacs at 7 p.m. on Friday at Fat Cat on East Ohio Street. (Note: Even though Fat Cat closed earlier this year, the space will be used for the festival.)

With 70 acts and about a dozen venues, the festival is enough to keep fans happy. But it’s a far cry from the hectic days of its predecessor, Deutschtown Music Festival. Running from 2013 to 2022 (except during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021), Deutschtown presented more than 400 acts over three days on more than 35 stages.

Soltesz, who is a Deutschtown co-founder, says he welcomes the scaled-down festival because it’s “less anxiety-inducing” and frees up more money to pay bands.

Andre Costello of the Forestry Division plays at the Northside Music Festival in 2023. The band returns to the festival this year. Photo courtesy of Melanie Stangl.

Weekend highlights include the final (or close-to-final) performances of a couple of Pittsburgh bands: Outsideinside, which has been together since 2011, closes out the Friday night show at the Allegheny Elks Lodge. The Forestry Division is on a farewell tour and plays the First National Bank Stage at Foreland and Middle streets at 10 p.m. on Saturday.

Though it’s a mostly local lineup, Soltesz has gone farther afield, bringing in bands from Columbus, Buffalo and Cleveland – and userband, an atmospheric rock group splitting time between Marseilles, France, and New York City. (They perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at The Government Center.)

Buffalo’s Handsome Jack band played at Club Cafe in May on a bill with Angela Perley from Columbus. Soltesz invited them both to play. Handsome Jack is at Fat Cat on Friday at 11 p.m., while Perley is set for Saturday at 8 p.m. on the First National Bank Stage.

“It’s our first time at the Northside Music Festival,” says Handsome Jack band member Joe Verdonselli. “We look forward to bringing our brand of boogie-soul rock ‘n' roll to Pittsburgh.”

Buffalo’s Handsome Jack (Bennie Hayes, Jamison Passuite and Joe Verdonselli) plays the Northside Music Festival on Friday night at the former Fat Cat. Photo courtesy of Jeff Tracy.

In addition to music everywhere, Northside is bringing back its children's activities area at Allegheny Commons East Park on Saturday and Sunday. The Redfishbowl Artists Village, with 100 vendors, will also be set up at the park. More than a dozen food trucks can be found on Foreland Avenue. Two large beer gardens will be open Friday from 6 to 11 p.m. and Saturday from 2 to 11 p.m. Food and drink will be available at many venues.

Sunday is what separates Northside from most music festivals. Gospel Sunday, presented by Allegheny Center Alliance Church, returns from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Highmark/AHN Park Stage, across from the church at Allegheny Commons. The morning concert features Kenny Stockard, Anjelique Strothers and the church choir. This year, they are adding an evening service with music from Steel City Revival from 6 to 8 p.m.

“We felt our (morning) hours did not provide sufficient opportunity for others in the faith community to participate, given that church services primarily convene during this window,” says Christian Ballenger, worship pastor at the church. “The evening hours give us a greater ability to be inclusive.”

Soltesz says that he enjoyed checking out the Millvale Music Festival in May. Running his own festival is a different story, he concedes, but “I wish I could sit and watch the bands we have all day.”

Annette Bassett is a freelance writer and grant writer living in Bloomfield. She likes visiting local breweries, going to concerts and walking the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh while listening to audiobooks. She prefers wired earbuds.